Immigration policy one of Scott’s legislative priorities

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When lawmakers begin preparing for next year’s legislative session in September, one of their priorities should be taking another look at laws dealing with immigrants, Gov. Rick Scott said Monday, reports Lilly Rockwell of the News Service of Florida.

Scott said the Legislature missed its best opportunity to do something about illegal immigration last session, because it’s a debate that’s “better to have in a non-election year than an election year” because things can get “blown out of proportion” during election years.

“We should have gotten something done on immigration,” Scott said.

How to deal with immigrants in the country illegally was one of the most intensely debated and controversial topics during this year’s legislative session, following passage of a high profile law in Arizona, and campaign promises by Scott in 2010 to get tougher on illegal immigrants.

The debate, though, divided the Republican Party, angered many Hispanics in the Legislature, and drew concerns from the powerful business lobby, which called proposals to beef up enforcement of federal laws with new state provisions costly to businesses and harmful to Florida’s workforce.

Ultimately, the legislation failed, after much lobbying by immigrant rights groups, some behind the scenes work from the agriculture lobby, and an intense, emotional debate on the Senate floor. It was one of the few issues that lawmakers couldn’t agree on in a legislative session dominated by a massive Republican to-do list.

Immigration changes are backed by many members of the Republican Party, especially in the “tea party” wing, many of whose members say that in the absence of federal immigration changes, states should make an effort to discover and deport illegal immigrants.

Florida’s immigration proposals floated earlier this year stopped short of the stringent Arizona-style measure that gave law enforcement officers broad power to detain someone suspected of being an illegal immigrant.

One proposal would have required law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of suspects once arrested and in custody. Another proposal would have let law enforcement officers seek the immigration status of suspects in criminal investigations and would sanction employers who do not use the federal E-verify system for checking status.

After Scott’s call for another discussion on immigration Monday, some business lobby groups said they didn’t think Florida should take up the controversial issue.

“This is a debate that needs to be played out at the federal level,” said Brewster Bevis, the vice president of external relations for Associated Industries of Florida, which lobbies on behalf of some of the state’s largest industries. “The last thing we need is going state by state and each state passing immigration laws to create a patchwork quilt system of immigration laws.”

Bevis acknowledged that despite the concerns surrounding the issue, it is likely to come up again next legislative session. “Moving into this session, do I think we will probably see immigration come back up? Sure, yeah I do think that,” Bevis said. “Will AIF continue to go out there and try to look for some means to have meaningful immigration reform? Yes we will. We will probably see some immigration reform this year.”

But Bevis said Florida cannot be too aggressive on immigration reform without scaring off businesses, a concern Scott said he was sensitive to while reiterating the need to hash out the sensitive topic next session.

“It’s a discussion we need to have,” Scott said. “I want to have a conversation this fall with everybody it impacts.”

Scott’s discussion with reporters of the issue on Monday was more nuanced than his campaign rhetoric, with the governor acknowledging that the state has to be careful in how it approaches changes in immigration policy.

“Where should the line be? Because one thing we can’t do is, we need jobs in our state,” Scott said. “And we can’t do anything that has an adverse impact on getting more jobs to our state.”

One thing that doomed efforts to change Florida’s law this year was that legislation in the Senate was crafted in a last-minute scramble toward the end of the session, irritating some lawmakers who thought it wasn’t thoroughly vetted.

The legislative proposals set off protests from immigrant rights groups, who flooded the Capitol for days, chanting, holding signs and pleading with lawmakers to reconsider.

Subhash Kateel, the coordinator of the We Are Florida campaign that launched protests against the proposals earlier this year, said he was dismayed the Governor wants to debate immigration again.

“One thing that is clear is it seems the Governor is still more interested in creating immigration bills than creating jobs,” Kateel said. Scott “didn’t get the message” last session when there was considerable opposition, he said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.